The scene opened with an inflatable dingy arriving at the shores of Lesbos, Greece. Packed full of men, women and children, the boat met the hands of the volunteers waiting to help the refugees off the vessel, as some in the back were smiling and chanting “thank you, thank you.”
Students and faculty gathered in the Woody Tanger Auditorium to hear the most recent guest of the Wolf Institute, Professor Irina Patkanian, speak on her documentary film about the Syrian refugee crisis that is occurring on the Greek island of Lesbos, a very popular point of refuge in a journey of families fleeing from their conflict-ridden homeland.
“When we were there about 4,265 people arrived daily,” said Patkanian. “This year already, in just the two months we were there, 67,681 refugees arrived through Lesbos. 410 drowned. When you arrive, there are two camps you can walk to. The road is 11 hours [to the refugee camp]. There were no busses at all. But they were just so glad that they survived the crossing, that they would just move slowly.”
Lesbos is said to be just about half of the state of Rhode Island in size. The refugees crossed the channel separating Greece from Turkey, known as the Mitilene straight, which is about five-to-six miles wide and takes about 45 minutes to cross on boat.
Patkanian spent two months filming the refugees at the camps and those arriving on the shores. Focusing on the “inaction” rather than action, her aim was to show the humanity in the situation and that not every world event or crisis is just something political.
“I wasn’t looking for the same thing that journalists were, so I’m not going to show you much action,” said Patkanian. “But I hope you will see something different that you may not see in the news. I guess, I was looking for things we have in common, not in difference.”
One scene that w
as shown depicted a frightened child standing on the shore. She couldn’t have been more than 3-years-old and stood confused while the others unloaded the boat behind her. Greeks stood off to the side and watched. The scene eventually lead to a happy man panning across his new-found sanctuary with his iPhone, laughing and estatic to have made it. They began to eat lunch and two children shared a meal, eventually smiling.
“It always amazed me,” said Patkanian. “Kids are just kids. That’s just their world.”
The reference of “Children of Gold” came from the emergency blankets that were given to the refugees that arrived cold and wet. They were a foil, shiny and metallic, gold on one side and silver on the other. As the children arrived, they were wrapped in the blankets.
“When I keep watching the refugees coming in gold and silver, they reminded me of candy, like the wrapping of candies,” said Patkanian. ““When you just close your mouth and watch, something happens. It’s sort of like a miracle; it’s like grace. You suddenly see something that you couldn’t see if somebody were talking.”
After the arrival, the refugees make the long trek of about 54.4 kilometers to one of the two camps, cold tired and hungry. At one point, Patkanian recollected when she and her photographer, Gus Ford, offered to make hamburgers for the refugees, but they couldn’t stomach them.
“There were different stations where you can stop and rest or have coffee and then you walk again,” said Patkanian. “But in the end though, you could arrive at this camp, they find out you’re not Syrian and you have to walk to a different refugee camp. Its another hour walk.”
The many refugees that Patkanian and her team encountered had numerous stories of tragedy and hardship. One woman at the camp described in Arabic, about a time when the Turkish guards were poking at the boat full of refugees with their rifles. The only part that was spoken in English was the exclamation of the words, “Please stop, please stop. Children here, please stop.”
“You’ve probably heard about the cemetery that is overcrowded in Lesbos,” said Patkanian. “Often it’s children and babies because they are the ones that can’t swim at all. When the boat capsizes, they are the first to die.”
The boats themselves are meant to host 20 people, but because of the high demand, they are loading 70 people on each boat, lining the inside with women and children in the center and men around the outside. The total cost of each journey is $1200 for adults and $600 for children. On average, about 70 boats land in Greece, which values the refugee crisis at about $6 million a day, for those who are running the boats.
“At some point, a woman came out of the boat and she was about sixty years old,” said Patkanian. “I went up to her and just gave her a hug and she just held me for so long and wouldn’t let me go. She was just crying and I realized how important is to them, not just the financial aid and what not, but just to know that we are human and we understand. We are the same. All those words we say we are, we are.”
The last scene Patkanian played for the audience was another boat being unloaded. Children were being lifted out, set on the ground and immediately wrapped in the gold blankets. A mother gave her daughter a juice-box to sip on well they waited to be checked by Greek volunteers. The last shot was of a young girl looking helpless at the camera as her teeth chattered from the cold. It was image that captured the essence of Patkanian’s lecture, not by coincidence, but a very deliberate point that helps us understand the significant weight of the refugee crisis, especially for those children.
“It’s not necessarily that they are scared and have to run away and that borders are lined where people say they are lined,” said Patkanian. “But maybe it’s a gift for us. Maybe it’s a gift for us to rethink things, to maybe question ourselves, maybe it will allow us to show a part of ourselves that we were not able to show before.”